The highs and lows of cloud computing

Cloud computing, with services such as Salesforce and Google Mail and Docs, is easily my favorite internet technology. The potential for scalable, affordable services online really excites me, and I definitely plan to enter that sector of industry when I get my degree. But cloud computing is fraught with pitfalls, too, as a few recent data disasters have shown.

Upsides:

  • When my data is in the cloud, I can access it from everywhere. This becomes increasingly important the more devices you have. When I want to see my email from my personal computer, my iPod Touch, netbook, my lab computer, my eReader, and my phone, it’s a lot more convenient to keep that data in the cloud, rather than having to manually sync each device. This property has saved me more than once, too. When I took a train to New York City last spring and found that I had forgotten my ticket confirmation number in the rush to get out the door, I was able to pull it up on a public internet terminal and still catch my train.
  • Cloud data is more secure than local data because it is backed up on someone else’s servers. If my office burns down, I’m still going to be able to access my email, and if the server goes down, there will be a dedicated team to fix the problem.
  • Cloud computing is necessary for software as a service (SAAS) products, which can be very scalable and very profitable. When Salesforce gains a new client, they don’t have to come out and do a complicated database installation or train local IT on how to implement their product on local servers, or even make sure all the users’ terminals have the same operating system. The software is in the cloud and ready to go; all the local users need is a browser to access the database.
  • The cloud has also ushered in an era of free applications such as Google Docs, which not only competes with expensive office suites but also enables easy document sharing: you don’t have to upload your presentation to send to your coworkers if your presentation already exists online. These programs are easy to use because there is no installation, and they’re compatible with almost all computers because they work through a browser.

Downsides:

  • Your data might not be as safe as it sounds. Last month, as Microsoft performed an update on the servers that host data for T-Mobile Sidekick users, something went horribly wrong and all data in the cloud was lost. I don’t own a Sidekick, but I would have been outraged if this happened to me. The worst part is that there really wasn’t anything Sidekick users could do about it. While Microsoft “worked round the clock” to restore the lost information, they couldn’t possibly restore everything. Backups can fail. No server is 100% safe. So while your data might stand a better chance in the cloud, the more backups you have, including local backups, the safer you are.
  • If the company you trust with your data goes down, you might lose it. Yahoo announced in April that it would close its free web-hosting site, Geocities. Last week every Geocities site officially became unavailable. While Yahoo gave plenty of warning in advance, it still hurts to find out that your website, something you consider your property, is going to be shut down no matter what you do. I’m sure plenty of Geocities users never had the chance to save their data. Whenever you upload content to 3rd party servers, you put your data in their hands, and there is always a danger that they will delete it without your permission.
  • The flip side to the argument that 3rd parties will ignore your data is that they will pay attention to your data. Online banking is a form of cloud computing, because the bank offers a virtualized resource as a service over the internet. That’s great, but there is huge pressure on the bank to make  sure I’m the only one who can see that data and manipulate it. Likewise, if I send confidential email, I trust Google Mail not to let its employees or anyone else read it without my permission, but neither I nor they can absolutely guarantee it will never happen. There is always a danger of unsecured data with cloud computing.
  • Cloud applications are primarily accessed through browsers, but browsers vary in terms of what technologies they support. While modern browsers like Firefox and Google Chrome adhere to web standards, the browser that dominates the market, Internet Explorer, sometimes makes its own rules, which web developers spend lots of time and money trying to stay ahead of. SAAS companies take a risk because they cannot guarantee the browser their client uses will be compatible with their software. Even scarier is the idea that Microsoft might decide that it doesn’t like the idea of Google Docs competing with its office suite and makes Internet Explorer incompatible with Google’s product.

So while cloud computing is exciting because of its scalability and versatility, it is also dangerous because it puts personal data into the hands of 3rd parties. I still think, however, that as people start using more and more devices in addition to personal computers on a regular basis, companies that utilize a cloud architecture to deliver their products will be the most successful.

  • http://poly-rhythms.blogspot.com F.A.R.

    SALESFORCE! Through the clouds and the computing, we carry on! \m/

    …also, hooray for cloud computing. Now, on any computer with a decent connection to the net, I can log in to Dropbox and begin a game of Exalted within minutes. I do sometimes worry about the meatballs, though.

  • http://perpetualstudent.net/blog Michael Thaler

    On the browser issue, I recently tried opening Google Wave in IE6 and was greeted with a message telling me to upgrade–and when I plowed through it anyway, the site basically refused to load. (It uses HTML5 elements, after all, and they aren’t supported in IE6, let alone all the Javascript.)

    Standards compliance is pretty much a must in this age. I still refuse to use Bing because when I was playing with it shortly after it came out, it gave me a message saying my browser “may not be supported”. After all their efforts to hold back webdev with IE, I really don’t have any sympathy for them–I could care less how awesome their product is if they make no effort to make it work on my configuration like every other web developer does.

    Oh, you might also mention DRM systems being taken down and locking people out of content they purchased, like Microsoft did and Amazon has demonstrated they can do with the Kindle.

  • http://www.vetvoice.com/userDiary.do?personId=4571 Jack

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  • http://www.public-death-records.com Amy J. Sampson

    I purchased the Kindle 2 as a gift for my husband. I could pretty much say he is reading from it every free moment. He absolutely loves it, even carries it with him to show friends. He has probably tripled the amount of reading he does. So…it was a great purchase. I even read some of the newspapers he has downloaded every day.

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    I had to try five times this afternoon to access your website. Are there problems with hosting? Is it my Internet connection?

  • Chris

    I think one issue is the definition of cloud computing changes. For example some papers define Software as a Service as a cloud. While others insist “cloud computing” only refers to “utility computing” which is data centers that cell time to the public ie Amazon EC2, Google App Engine, etc… Many Software As a Service providers have their own data center and hence don’t count as “the cloud” by these papers. So depending upon your definition of “the cloud” things change.

    Also don’t be too sure about the safety of your data in the cloud. Remember our friends at ATT who forwarded our internet traffic to the government without a legal document saying they had to? If you work for a company and the government asks for your data but doesn’t have a legal document saying give it to us, then you tell them to e2fsck off. But if your cloud provider is all scared by the government they could just give them the data. Also if there is a payment dispute or something, the cloud provider has your data and can easily hold it for ransom. Also there were a few services where the entire service just vanished or hosting utilities where I read that the someone on the hosting service did something bad and the government seized all the servers affecting many other people. Also I recall reading that both Amazon and Google had some downtime. For some companies an hour of downtime could mean millions in lost revenue. Also some companies need to control their data per government regulations (many finance and health care laws).

    But if you are a total idiot on running a business then the cloud may be better. For example anyone with half a brain should be doing offsite backups. If you have someone who can’t even do that, then the cloud will give you more fault tolerance. Although even then I’d be careful. You have to search for it, but there was one company I remember who lost all the data of all the customers. I’m sure they claimed to be doing backups. I would think you could trust Google/Yahoo more than any other company. But if carolynworks.com suddenly offers utility computing and cloud storage, can I trust you? I don’t know you. You could be lying.

    Also another disadvantage fo the cloud (and software as a service) is that more source code is not shared and kept secret. For programmers it is good to have a lot of application programs to inspect. Many of the open source licenses (including the GPL) only say you have to pass on the source if you distribute the application. If you use the GLPled libraries on your server to provide software as a service, then you don’t have to give the source code to whoever is accessing the service….

  • Chris

    Anyway the other thing I left out is the cloud doesn’t always make sense economically. Anyway rather than try to inform you on the cloud, I suggest you read the paper “Above the Clouds: A Berkeley View of Cloud Computing” by Michael Armbrust,Armando Fox,Rean Griffith, Anthony D. Joseph,Randy H. Katz,Andrew, Konwinski,Gunho Lee,David A. Patterson,Ariel Rabkin,Ion Stoica,Matei Zaharia

    It does a good job of defining the cloud as utility computing. And lays out the economic case for the cloud. If your service will use most of the capacity of a machine, then it is cheaper to run your own data center. If you only need a few computers with an occasional scale up, then it is better to use a cloud. The case really has to do with peak loud and scale up. Otherwise you pay more to rent a computer full time than to buy.

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